Q&A on Electronic Money and International Finance

Question: I can’t resolve a question I have about breaking the ZLB with electronic money, and it’s driving me nuts.

I re-read a couple of your posts that mention a kind of ‘first-mover’ advantage in breaking the zero lower bound: not only does a first-mover get the usual stimulus from lowering the interest rate, but the fact that it is the only country in the world that can offer such a low interest rate is likely to boost demand further.

I’m struggling with the effect on the supply of loanable funds within the first-moving country. Essentially, as the central bank lowers the interest rate, and economy-wide interest rates fall, won’t some investors begin to look abroad for better risk-reward alternatives? I know that it’s not costless or riskless to transfer to a different currency, but it seems that the central bank’s effectiveness in unilaterally changing interest rates would be hampered by the existence of outside options: either some interest rates will remain high or some agents will begin to 'cash out,’ if you’ll pardon the pun, and move their money abroad. 

I hope it’s clear what I’m trying to ask. Would you help me figure out what I’m missing?

Answer: Great question. I am using logic from Mankiw’s textbook treatment of international finance, which I lay out in my post “International Finance: A Primer.”

Basically, when people start investing abroad because rates of return are higher abroad, that is a capital outflow, and that is why exports go up. Capital outflows put domestic currency in the hands of those abroad. They don’t really want it, so exchange rates adjust until that currency (whether physical or virtual) makes its way back to its home country to buy exports. “Moving money abroad” is a stimulus to exports, because goods follow money.  

The only way an outside option would cause trouble is if firms starting setting prices and wages in a foreign currency. It is crucial that sticky prices and/or wages (or at least most of them) be set in terms of the electronic dollar (or whatever the domestic electronic currency unit is called). 

In my electronic money seminar, I make the point that, when they occur, negative interest rates on paper currency are not meant to disadvantage paper currency. What those negative interest rates on paper currency do is make it so there is nowhere to hide from the negative interest rates except by spending the money. You can send your own funds abroad, but then the person who took your dollars in exchange for their own currency now can’t hide from the negative interest rates except by spending the dollars. In that situation, by sending dollars abroad, you haven’t eliminated the hot potato of dollars earning a negative interest rate from the world, you have only made it someone else’s problem. The only escape from those negative interest rates is to spend the money, so someone–you or someone further down the chain–will be driven to spend it.  

Follow-up Question: Ok. In other words, this kind of behavior (bailing on the domestic currency) will just lead the exchange rate to adjust until some form of interest rate parity is achieved again. Is that the right?

Answer: No. There might continue to be an interest rate difference. But the international flow of funds to the higher interest rate stimulates exports through its effect on the exchange rate.